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Vice-Chancellor news

Higher Education and deferring the start of in-person teaching further

29 January 2021

Read a message from the Vice-Chancellor sent to staff today (29 January).

Dear colleague

Beyond coronavirus and Brexit, the subjects of my last emails, quite a lot has happened this month and quite a lot is in the offing. Towards the end of January a series of announcements on Higher Education was made by the Department for Education in London. While these do not necessarily apply directly to Wales, some of them may have knock-on effects in time. Useful information was thin on the ground, however. The long-awaited government response to the Augar Review was an interim announcement that offered little clarity on the UK government’s thinking in relation to university funding, apart from expressing concern about the overall cost of higher education and the need for it to be controlled. A further response will be released eventually, but for the moment there are no obvious consequences for Wales, and certainly no immediate ones. The changes to funding in England (including removing the London weighting for teaching grants) are cost-neutral and so there are no Barnett consequentials. The question of whether there will be a move to reduce fees in future remains open, but there is no obvious indication at present that Augar’s recommendation to reduce the maximum fee level to £7,500 will be followed at the next spending review.

The absence of Jo Johnson from government, indeed from politics, has clearly allowed greater latitude in respect of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). This is apparent from the much-delayed government response to Dame Shirley Pearce’s Independent Review of TEF, which was originally published in August 2019. The most salient point of the response is the decision not to proceed with subject-level TEF, despite the report’s recommendation to do so. This is welcome in terms of reducing effort, but it is also notable that the response says that the government agrees with the ‘Independent Review’s proposition that the primary purpose of the TEF should be the enhancement of quality’. Jo Johnson’s original objective for TEF was to assess teaching quality and guide funding decisions in accordance with the outcome (as we do with REF), so this is a major difference and one has to ask what was wrong with the previous system of quality assurance and enhancement via the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). Given that we in Wales have our own mechanism for assuring and enhancing quality, still delivered by the QAA, and indeed that we in Cardiff underwent a spectacularly successful Quality Enhancement Review in 2020, there remains a real question over whether we should participate in TEF on the next occasion envisaged by the government response, which is in 2022.

Having been a Vice-Chancellor now for over a decade, I am reaching the stage where previously discussed and rejected ideas start to come round again. In this case I am thinking of Post Qualifications Admissions, which, from memory, was last debated and consulted on in 2011. The proposal now has the full support of the UK government, which is a major difference, although there have to be continuing questions about its deliverability, given the timing issues around A-level results and the start of the university teaching year. I understand that there is a real determination to push this through, however, and if that happens in England it would be very difficult for Wales to stand aside and continue with the system of conditional offers that has been in place since the existence of UCAS and its predecessor body UCCA (the University Central Council on Admissions, which was established in 1961). We must therefore await a proposal on this matter and hope that it is sufficiently thought through and that the devolved governments will have the opportunity to feed in to any plans at an early enough stage.

On top of the uncertainty generated by these announcements, Senedd elections are due to take place this year (these would normally be in May, but they may be delayed until later in the year). One thing we can be sure of is that we will have a new Minister of Education, and the hope is that the new incumbent will display the competence and stability so ably offered by Kirsty Williams over the past five years or so. A major uncertainty is whether the bill to establish a new Commission for Tertiary Education and Research will be carried over into the next parliament, especially given the array of pressing matters arising from coronavirus and Brexit that will be on the agenda of the new government, whatever its complexion.

Of course the much bigger question facing us is what will the world look like in six months, a year, two years time? There are some things we can be certain of. One is that in terms of the University, and indeed all educational institutions, the blended approach is here to stay. Blended not only in terms of teaching and learning, but in ways of working and prosecuting our research. We know broadly what blended learning, researching and working have looked like thus far, but the challenge is to consider what it might look like in a world — for the sake of argument — where we can freely associate once more with no special precautions. The balance between in-person and virtual interaction will surely change, and we need to think through to what extent it will change. That will vary from activity to activity and from subject to subject, and so the discussion needs to take place in every School, department and division. Now is not the time to expect people to undertake extra work, but looking forward, we will need to start positioning ourselves for the future in a world where competition will be less geographically bound.

Fortunately one other thing we know is that despite the successful adoption of remote teaching methods, students very much still want to come to Cardiff to live and study. Demand remains very high for our programmes and some areas, such as healthcare and related subjects, computer science and mathematics are seeing surges in applications, which is encouraging for the next academic year.

For research there are likely to be new opportunities for international collaboration and open research. We will be in a world where the global transfer of ideas, knowledge and data will be an easier and more familiar process, and where the physical movement of people reduces, not only because of the pandemic effect, but also because of a greater acceptance of remote working and the requirements of combatting climate change. What this all means for our practice as a university requires focussed strategic attention and we will want to engage as many staff, students and stakeholders as possible in debating these issues, once the immediate crisis has passed.

One other aspect of coronavirus deserves attention. It is clear that the pandemic has accelerated a range of existing trends, amongst them inequality. The impact on society has varied enormously, with a differential deleterious effects according to a range of factors including social class, income, ethnicity and gender. Amongst these effects the pandemic has created a crisis of equal opportunity in research; we will need to carry out an equality impact assessment to understand the differential impact on women and men. We can see some effect of this already, and I want to reassure you that we will be taking the matter seriously in general terms too, taking into account the effects of lockdown on matters such as promotion, leadership opportunities, leave, the ability to make funding applications and studentships, to name only some of the possible affected areas. We will be considering how best to address this for our staff so that we can ensure that we foster a diverse, inclusive research community despite the huge challenges facing us as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Finally, you will be aware that in my email earlier this month I said we would be reviewing the position as concerns the re-introduction of in-person teaching across our programmes. In the meantime our group of expert scientific advisers have reviewed our policies and with some refinements have given clear reassurances that the procedures we have in place will continue to be effective in reducing the risk of transmission to acceptable levels. Thus far we have had no transmission of the virus in teaching settings, either before Christmas or in the various programmes where teaching has continued since Christmas, when we know the new variant has been circulating in our communities.

However, there is a range of factors to consider. I am very conscious of the demands that home schooling makes on colleagues with younger children, and delivering bimodal teaching is particularly demanding. While we are clear, as is Public Health Wales, that our campus is covid-secure and that in-person teaching as well as research in our laboratories can continue so long as everybody continues to follow the guidelines strictly, we have to consider the position off campus, including in student residences. In addition, you may have seen the Welsh Government’s announcement on its latest position and we will want to ensure that as ever we align with the guidance we receive. We will say more about this early next week, and Schools will confirm details for their programmes, but I can say now that most teaching will remain online until the 26 March (with the exception of health-related and practical-based programmes where on-campus activity is required to meet programme learning outcomes). As ever we will be communicating with students as soon as possible and will be differentiating according to their specific needs. I’m very grateful to all colleagues for their commitment to ensuring that all our students meet their learning outcomes and are able to progress in their education at Cardiff. We will want to be as clear as possible as soon as possible on the full implications, and in the meantime I ask for your forbearance.

With best wishes,

Colin Riordan